Complete analysis of First Truth of Life : Dukkha


Sometimes one hears that Hindus are pessimistic because they talk about how life is suffering. I don’t think this claim is very fair, because dukkha is only 25 per cent of the four truths. In fact, Hindus like to focus on the third and fourth truths : freedom and ways to be free.

The aim of the practice includes the realization or acknowledgement of dukkha and not a fixation on it. In the Introduction I wrote that dukkha is probably best understood as unsatisfactoriness. It can be mild or extreme and is characterized by unhappiness and discontent. The first noble truth, according to Hindu philosophy, is that dukkha is a fundamental aspect of existence, since for most human beings life is characterized by a pervasive sense of unsatisfactoriness and uncertainty. To overcome dukkha we must first understand it.


From a Lord Sadguru perspective dukkha can be understood in three ways: 


  • (1) dukkha as ordinary suffering
  • (2) dukkha as produced by change, and 
  • (3) dukkha as a characteristic of clinging to the belief that we do not change and are separate from the world around us.


The first type of dukkha, also called dukkha of dukkha (or the suffering of suffering), is blatant and obvious. It encompasses the difficulties associated with birth, old age, sickness and death. Also included in this first category is the inevitable fact that individuals often get what they don’t want, don’t get what they want, and are, at some time or other parted from what they like. Emotional pain, worry, fear, anxiety, sadness, grief, sorrow, lamentation, despair, anger, rage, anguish, confusion, loneliness, alienation and other distressing states are experienced by most people at some time or other and are included in this first type of dukkha.

The second type of dukkha, the suffering of change, involves the paradox of living in happy and pleasant states and yet knowing these beautiful moments are transient and must inevitably change and disappear.

At some time or other the things we cling to as sources of happiness and security will eventually change. The stronger the clinging the more intense is the dukkha as the objects we cling to change.

The last type of dukkha involves the suffering produced from clinging to the belief that our changing body and mind, that which we call ‘I’, ‘mine’ and ‘myself’, with its sensations, thoughts, feelings and emotions, will last forever and is separate and not connected with the world around us.

Contemporary psychologists generally don’t use the word dukkha, but it is what they address in groups and individual therapy. A word more familiar, and used more consistently by psychologists, is ‘stress’.

Whilst the meaning of dukkha is much deeper and broader than what most people understand as stress, stress is a relevant aspect of dukkha that is worth exploring.


Stress

Stress is a word that everyone uses but there is little agreement on what it means. Originally stress was an engineering term referring to the strain placed on physical objects. Then it referred to the biological response that living things had when toxins were released into their systems. The terms stress or, stress, being stressed and stressing out have come to refer to many different psychological things. 

Sometimes we may be stressed because something very difficult happens to us, like becoming ill, losing our job, having to move from our home, or when someone who is close to us is dying or dies.

There are many different ways stress is described and explained in image below. One way to think about stress is when demands outweigh our ability to cope, and as a result we react physically and emotionally, with our thoughts and with our behaviors. 


A stress interaction

Being overwhelmed by things that are happening within us and around us is another way to describe stress. When we are stressed we may act mindlessly, do things without care and attention and make mistakes. Some of the behavioural reactions involved in stress include acting in ways that are harmful to our self or others either in the short term or long term. 

For example, being hijacked by destructive urges and hurting ourselves or hurting people we care about. Or we may become slaves to addictions such as too much TV, Internet, chocolate, drinking, smoking or taking drugs as a way to cope. Unfortunately these types of behaviors can lead to heedlessness or becoming physically unwell.

Stress may affect us emotionally, physically and mentally. Emotional reactions such as uncontrollable anger, intense sadness and unfounded fear have been related to stress. Physically, stress may lead to muscle tension, increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, sweating, diarrhoea, nausea, aches and pains, headaches and a whole range of illnesses. Mental reactions to stress include not being able to think clearly, lack of focus and forgetfulness. The dukkha of stress can manifest as a depressed mood, anxiety, worry, loss of confidence, irritability and/or a sense that we have to rush because we never have enough time to do what we need to do.

I am mentioned that as people experience varying degrees of dukkha, it can be viewed as occurring on a continuum of  intensity. Those suffering from anxiety, depression and other ‘disorders’ are no different than anyone else, except that their dukkha may be at one end of the intensity continuum. Few people do not suffer with some kind of dukkha. Like stress, patterns of anxiety and depression can be considered as a sense of being out of balance. Though ‘imbalance’ may be a more accurate way of describing psychological suffering, the term ‘disorder’ is used in mental health establishments to refer to particular symptom patterns that are distressing, affect our relationships with other people and/or impact on our ability to cope and function. Sometimes the psychological disorders we experience may form into a personality style, and these are called personality disorders. Often personality disorders are noticed more by other people because of their enduring nature and the way they impact on our relationships.

Psychological disorders There is a multitude of psychological disorders and in many of these, people experience anxiety and depressive symptoms. Even thought here are differences between disorders, symptoms found in one disorder may also be found in others. Further, everyone is different and so, even though many people may have the same disorder, an individual’s particular symptom pattern is unique to them. Often people do not clearly fit a particular diagnosis or they feel stigmatised by having what they are experiencing named as a disorder. As long as people do not identify with their disorder, naming them can, however, be very useful. Naming symptom patterns as a disorder can help to share information and ultimately help people understand how best to manage their distress.

Names for disorders have changed over the years and will probably change further as science refines understanding. At the time of writing this article according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders; some of the anxiety disorders includes:


  • • Generalized Anxiety Disorder or GAD.
  • • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD, where there are anxiety responses related to one or more traumatic situations.
  • • Agoraphobia, where there is fear of being in places or situations (such as shopping malls, in cinemas, in buses and more) where escape may be difficult or embarrassing.
  • • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder or OCD, where there may be strange and unwanted thoughts as well as possible compulsions to act in ritualistic ways to neutralise the thoughts.
  • • Social Phobia, where there is excessive fear of being judged by others in a negative way and as a result the person avoids social circumstances.
  • • Panic disorder, where panic attacks happen in situations where most people would not be afraid. Depression as a disorder is very common. There are different types of depression that include:
  • • Bipolar disorder (manic depression) which is clearly a biological illness that often involves severe mood swings between feeling down and feeling manic.
  • • Reactive depression, where depressive symptoms emerge after a very difficult circumstance.
  • • Endogenous depression, in which symptoms emerge without any particular reason except, perhaps, chemical imbalances in the brain.
  • • Post-natal depression, which affects some mothers within a few months after the birth of a child. Sometimes depression is categorised as psychotic, melancholic or non-melancholic depending on how symptoms present and how severe they are.



Depression and anxiety

Depression usually involves a sad, discontented and miserable mood, while anxiety usually involves fear and feeling physically excited and on guard. Fear and sadness are defining features of anxiety and depression respectively. Both fear and sadness are, however, natural tendencies that have served an evolutionary and practical role.

Without fear, for example, we may not have survived the many dangers we have had to confront throughout our lives. Sadness on the other hand may be a necessary part of the process of overcoming loss.

It is important to honour these emotions and respect that they may have a function and a naturally occurring time frame. 


In depressive and anxiety disorders, unfortunately, fear and sadness have become excessive and are not functional. As mentioned previously, these conditions may have a range of biological, social and/or psychological causes. One point to consider with these disorders is that in some cases the reactions experienced can be learned or conditioned. For example, we may have experienced justified fear or anxiety in one circumstance but when the fear is generalised to other situations where it is not necessary, it can be problematic. For the most part, fear and the chain of events connected with fear are involuntary and necessary responses for survival. A panic attack in Panic Disorder is a fear response when there is no need for this response. This panic is like a false alarm to a situation that does not warrant the natural flight or fight responses that are needed in a dangerous situation. In these situations individuals may be over-sensitive to triggers and react unnecessarily. They occur very quickly (within ten minutes) and also usually pass very quickly.


Some or all of the following symptoms can occur with a panic attack:


  • • breathlessness
  • • a feeling of choking, being smothered or a tight throat
  • • tingling in the hands and feet, pounding heart
  • • faintness or dizziness
  • • pressure, tightness or pain in the chest
  • • trembling or shaking
  • • ‘jelly’ legs
  • • muscular tension
  • • blurred vision or spots before the eyes
  • • nausea or ‘butterflies’
  • • increased heart rate or heart pounding
  • • sweating
  • • chills or hot flushes
  • • de-realisation or a sense that we are in a dream and it is not real
  • • depersonalisation or a sense that we are outside ourselves
  • • strong urges to escape 

Sometimes panic attacks occur out of the blue without any particular trigger and they take people by surprise. Other times they may be predictable and are cued by reminders of situations, thoughts or physical sensations related to frightening or traumatic events. Panic attacks are common and about one in ten people will have at least one panic attack in their life. Panic attacks can often occur in the context of other emotional problems.

Another very common anxiety disorder is Generalised Anxiety Disorder or GAD. The key feature of GAD is uncontrollable worry for at least six months. Those suffering with GAD may also experience some of the following symptoms to a degree that interrupts their ability to function in life:


  • • restlessness or feeling keyed up
  • • being easily fatigued
  • • difficulty concentrating or mind going blank
  • • irritability
  • • muscular tension
  • • sleep disturbance Many of the experiences of anxiety overlap with depression. 



The symptoms of depression include:


  • • depressed mood
  • • diminished interest and pleasure
  • • weight loss or gain
  • • insomnia or hyper-somnia (over-sleeping)
  • • psycho-motor agitation or retardation
  • • fatigue
  • • excessive guilt or feelings of worthlessness
  • • recurrent thoughts of death
  • • low self-esteem
  • • feelings of hopelessness
  • • poor concentration or difficulty making decisions.


Worry and rumination are two aspects of dukkha that occur in both depression and anxiety. However, worry tends to occur more with anxiety, and rumination more with depression. More details about these two tendencies will be given in a later chapter. Initially, it is enough to understand that these tendencies tend to be very unpleasant, and thus are experienced as dukkha. They also tend to be self-reinforcing and so cause more worry and rumination. Worry is driven by fear and avoidance and generally refers to thinking excessively about solutions to problems, somewhere in the future, where the outcomes may be uncertain. Rumination is similar to worry in that thoughts seem to intrude in an uncontrollable manner but it is less future oriented and more passive than worry. That is, one mulls over an issue but does not think of any solutions. With rumination one generally focuses repeatedly on negative aspects of the past or one’s current distress and its circumstances. Both worry and rumination often perpetuate stress and are habitual or automatic, in that they seem beyond control and appear to happen without conscious choice.

Anxiety and depression are just two manifestations of the first truth. Unfortunately, these aspects of dukkha affect most of us in some way or another. Fortunately there are ways to disengage from the binds of these experiences. The third truth involves the realisation of freedom and the fourth truth represents the path of realisation and how to live it, but first we must discover the second truth.


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